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Election Impact: The Power of Primaries

Election Impact: The Power of Primaries

May 2024

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

Primaries can be messy and fraught with political risk, but they play a critical role in shaping each Congress.

There’s still more than five months before Election Day and yet 22 candidates effectively have their tickets punched for Capitol Hill. They are likely to be new members of Congress next year because they’ve already won primaries in districts or states that are either solidly Republican or solidly Democratic and the general election is more of a formality.

There are already five likely new members of the Senate next year. Republican Jim Banks of Indiana, Republican Jim Justice of West Virginia and Democrat Adam Schiff of California slid through three very different primaries. Schiff’s was expensive and competitive on March 5 and Banks was unopposed on May 7. Technically, Democrats Andy Kim of New Jersey and Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware have yet to win their primaries, but they are on the glide path to those nominations on June 4 and Sept. 10 because of the hard work they’ve put in earlier in the cycle.

Six Democrats and 11 Republicans are likely to be new members of the House next year. Democrats Luz Rivas (29th District), Laura Friedman (30th) and former Rep. Gil Cisneros (31st) won primaries in California and Julie Johnson won the primary in Texas’ 32nd more than two months ago on March 5. Johnny Olszewski (2nd) and Sarah Elfreth (3rd) won primaries in Maryland on Tuesday.

Republican Brandon Gill won the GOP primary that same day in Texas’ 26th. He’ll have at least five new colleagues from North Carolina including Addison McDowell (6th District), Mark Harris (8th), Pat Harrigan (10th), Brad Knott (13th), Tim Moore (14th) and three from Indiana including former Rep. Marlin Stutzman (3rd), Jefferson Shreve (6th) and Mark Messmer (8th). David Taylor of Ohio’s 2nd is also on the likely new member list after winning the GOP primary on March 19. And Riley Moore won a key primary in West Virginia’s 2nd District on Tuesday.

This is not a new phenomenon.

In 2022, Katie Britt (Alabama), Eric Schmitt (Missouri), Ted Budd (North Carolina), Markwayne Mullin (Oklahoma) and Peter Welch (Vermont) were all elected from states that didn’t have a competitive general election. And more than 40 House members (more than half of the freshman class) followed the same path from solid district primaries to the 118th Congress.

In 2020, Tommy Tuberville (Alabama), Roger Marshall (Kansas), Bill Hagerty (Tennessee) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyoming) were all elected from states that didn’t have a competitive general election. And more than half of the new House members from the 117th Congress were effectively elected in primaries.

Primary turnout is often low – just 27% of registered voters, on average, from 2000 to 2020, compared to an average of 61% turnout in the general election – so there’s an opportunity to influence outcomes by persuasion or boosting turnout.

While the opportunity to influence the outcome and help choose a new member of Congress are compelling reasons to get involved in a primary, playing in intra party fights can be risky. Understanding and navigating local dynamics and relationships can be difficult from the outside. There’s also the risk of angering a new member Congress before they even take office by supporting their opponent in the initial primary. And considering the high reelection rate for incumbents, that scorned candidate might be in office for a long time, and have oversight on important issues.

But only participating in general elections means missing dozens of opportunities to help choose a new member of Congress in the primary.

It’s not too late to jump aboard the primary train. Thirteen states are in the books, but there’s still primaries in 36 states between now and Sept. 10. (Yes, that adds up to 49. Louisiana has its all-party primary on Nov. 5.)

Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. You can also hear more on the Inside Elections Podcast. His email address is [email protected].

There’s still more than five months before Election Day and yet 22 candidates effectively have their tickets punched for Capitol Hill. They are likely to be new members of Congress next year because they’ve already won primaries in districts or states that are either solidly Republican or solidly Democratic and the general election is more of a formality.

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